Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Aaronovitch and Toynbee on religion and the Embryology Bill

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The big news from our perspective over the Easter weekend has been the repeated calls from pulpits across the land to give MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

We're becoming all too used to these attacks on science from religious leaders, who twist the facts and use ridiculous hyperbole to try and convince their congregations that cutting-edge scientific research that could eventually save millions of lives is somehow morally abhorrent. Take Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, for example, who describes research involving human-animal hybrid embryos as "monstrous", "grotesque", "hideous" and of "Frankenstein proportions".

I can find no better way to dismiss this than to quote Polly Toynbee in today's Guardian:

"Whatever the religious claims, the human fertilisation and embryology bill is not in some special moral category of its own. It allows scientists to use the outer empty shell of animal eggs, for lack of spare human eggs, in which to implant purely human DNA for 14 days, to derive stem cell lines which model a particular disease to be studied in the lab. The UK pioneers stem-cell research into Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, motor neurone disease and muscular dystrophy, as well as cancer, diabetes, strokes and infertility. Contrary to the cardinals' wilfully ignorant campaign of misinformation, no animal hybrid, no monstrous Island of Doctor Moreau chimeras loom. Forget spurious "thin end of the wedge" arguments: no further step can be taken without another act of parliament."

Not that Easter Sunday congregations were informed of any of this. Anyone listening to the likes of O'Brien who didn't have any other knowledge of embryology might have come away thinking the law could lead to the creation of a race of half-human/half-cow devil-worshipping entities ready to bring about the destruction of God's people. According to O'Brien, the idea that embryo research might lead to the curing of diseases is merely an "excuse" used by scientists to ensure they get the right to pursue their sinister activities. And it wasn't just Catholics getting in on the act. The Anglican Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, managed these words of wisdom from his pulpit: "Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species bending".

It's this sensationalist, misleading and distasteful tone that has irked David Aaronovitch, who in today's Times presents a fantastic case for why we must stand up to religious attempts to interfere in science and government legislation:

"Like most of the Godless (or Godfree), I have no desire to proselytise for atheism or to persuade people out of religions that may offer them comfort and companionship. But there is a growing shrillness and unpleasantness - yes, an unscrupulousness - about the way that some of the top faithful increasingly choose to conduct their arguments. This needs to be combated because, for all their talk of conscience, what Dr Wright and Cardinal O'Brien really seem to want is to tell the rest of us how to live."

Here's hoping the Government stands firm, rejects calls for a free vote and ensures the Embryology Bill passes because, as Toynbee points out "trying to make things better in the human here and now trumps imposing needless suffering on the sick for perverse doctrinal reasons."

Update: Well, scratch what I said above. Gordon Brown has just announced that he will allow Labour MPs a free vote on "controversial" elements of the bill. Which means that pressure from the Catholic Church has led to a situation where a piece of legislation vital to medical research might be rejected by a 21st century British parliament. We can only hope the religious lobby isn't strong enough to make this happen, but if you read Toynbee's Guardian piece, we can't be too sure of that. I suppose we can look forward to more political pronouncements in Sunday sermons, as religious leaders will clearly have realised they're on to something.